At the 2012 European Championships in Poland we were lauded as the best fans in the world for cheering on our team even in defeat. At the same time another of our top-level teams, Monaghan United, went out of existence due to lack of support.
According to the Irish Sports Council report “The Irish Sports Monitor”, football is the most played team sport in the country but it lags behind Gaelic football for attendance figures.
At a time when Ireland is going through its worst economic crisis in the history of the state, “almost 200,000 people still spent close to €100 million cheering on their favourite teams in the English Premier League” (Conor Pope, The Irish Times 2012). Why is there a disconnect between Irish football fans and Irish football teams?
Let’s look at thing from a micro economic perspective and the factors that create demand.
The average price of an adult ticket to a League of Ireland match is €15. This seems quite reasonable when compared to other sports, and other forms of entertainment (e.g.. cinema, music concert etc.). Clubs also run limited special offers where children go free or women go free. The facilities at a lot of grounds are not great, but fans go primarily to watch football and not to critique the toilets or fast food outlet. The price charged by League of Ireland clubs, therefore, is not adversely affecting attendances.
Price of an alternative
This is where things get interesting. As I am concentrating on football fans, I am not going to view other sports as substitutes for football (although it could be argued that some football fans are sports fans and could be swayed by other sporting events). Lets look at what footballing alternatives are available to Irish fans and how prices compare.
British football has huge support in Ireland. The Irish market is worth hundreds of millions of Euro to English and Scottish clubs through merchandise and match day costs. The cheapest price to attend one of the most popular English teams (Manchester United on this occasion) was €224, Scottish football was similarly priced (Celtic FC at €139 excl. travel).
If you were not to travel to games (it is estimated that only 6% of supporters travel in an average season). You could subscribe to a satellite sports package to feed your football hunger. Sky Sports cost €64 per month, which equates to €585 per season.
The cost of an average season ticket to a League of Ireland club is €200. That means you could watch every home game for less than the cost of travelling to watch one British team play once. If you compare the average cost of a League of Ireland club season ticket to a Sky Sports subscription, you will pay almost four times as much money over the term of the subscription for the privilege of not going to a game. Therefore, the price of an alternative is much more expensive and does not adversely affect attendances.
The recession has had a significant effect on the Irish economy. Unemployment and migration have both risen and expendable income is down almost 8% since before the crisis (see here). This being said, the attendances at League of Ireland games has remained quite steady through the boom and bust period. There is little variation in numbers in the period and no correlation compared to the growth of the Celtic Tiger economy, therefore, income is not adversely affecting attendances.
The next two factors I am going to combine because that are both affected by promotion/marketing:
Taste and expectation
For decades, if not centuries, product sellers have understood the importance of creating the right expectation in the customer’s mind if one hopes to have the product accepted and liked.
As stated earlier, the Irish football market is worth hundreds of millions of Euro to British clubs and the British economy in general. In order to cement this relationship, expensive advertising campaigns are run, teams travel here for friendly games, and former players travel to Ireland to promote their clubs and ensure their profile is kept very much alive.
According to the Deloitte Annual Review of Football Finance the English Premier League is by far the richest league in Europe. It generates €1billion more than its nearest rival. With this sort of money clubs in England employ some of the worlds best players and play in big modern stadiums. They have huge marketing budgets, and their league is marketed by companies that benefit from it (the Premier League sells newspapers, magazines, and subscriptions to satellite television stations).
Unfortunately for our league, football fans tend to compare the League of Ireland to the English Premier League and all its trappings. Ireland’s league is mostly played in old dilapidated stadiums. There has been little investment in infrastructure in years and comparisons show this starkly (it’s like comparing a Farrari to a second-hand Fiat!). Small attendances in old stadiums gives the public a certain expectation of the product on show. Some Irish football fans will comment about how bad the League of Ireland is, without ever going to a match, based on their expectation of the product. Expectation does affect attendances.
Taste, in economic terms, is basically what’s popular or fashionable at the time. Taste varies from time to time. Taste in music, fashion, décor etc and even sport is not stagnant and is influenced by promotion and marketing. One example is the recent success of the Irish Cricket team has made Cricket popular again which led to almost 10,000 people attending the Ireland v England one day international in Malahide in 2013. This would have been unheard of ten years ago but taste changes, and therefore taste does affect attendances.
Although we don’t have the most successful league in the world we do have one thing that is the envy of football fans all over Europe. Most of our top clubs are fan run, we have a very competitive league (in the past ten years there have been seven different winners) and we have huge potential. If the FAI and the Government where to invest in infrastructure and promotion we could be in a position where self-sustaining clubs could create real employment and generate at least as much revenue in the economy as our other big sports.
For me, the main reason why our league should be promoted is because football is only properly enjoyed in a stadium. To be outside in the fresh air feeling the atmosphere of excitement as another attack builds up, to be able to see players positions when the don’t have the ball, and just to be able to socialise with your friends or bond with your children.
Being the eternal optimist I think Irish football is on the up, fingers crossed those with the necessary power may see its value and potential, and help to improve what is already a great product.